Some secrets are buried too deep to get at. Ocean fronts deep below the surface, where distinct masses of water come together, are hard to study. But a marine robot and its submarine buddy might be about to change that.
Thomas, an uncrewed boat designed and built near Portsmouth, UK, is embarking on a two-week mission to record data from such hard-to-reach waters.
The main goal is to study oceanographic fronts, boundaries between two distinct water masses, which are common in the seas around the UK. The large aggregations of plankton, which thrive in the steep gradients in temperature found in such places, mean they also teem with larger life.
“Fronts are of interest to conservationists because they are biodiversity hotspots,” saysof the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK. “We need to understand better how predicable they are, how persistent they are, how endangered species such as basking sharks and commoner species such as gannets and other sea birds utilise them.”
But because these types of fronts can be some 30 metres below the surface, such as the one near the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall, they can’t be seen on satellite images, and time on research ships is pricey.
“We still don’t know much about where these oceanographic fronts actually are,” says, head of EU and UK marine policy at conservation group WWF.
Enter Thomas, a robotic surface vehicle that the National Oceanography Centre and the WWF are planning to launch today from Penzance. Thomas will work alongside a sub-surface glider called Drake, which can take readings as far as 100 metres below the surface.
“Nowadays, if you’re writing a proposal for science funding, you need to bid for time on a research ship. This can cost thousands and thousands of pounds an hour. A vehicle like this can be gathering the same data over many days, for the same amount of money,” says James Cowles of ASV, the company based in Porchester, UK, that makes Thomas.
Uncrewed robots are also less sonically invasive than big ships with crews, says Wynn, which makes them useful for studying whales and dolphins, and for measuring background.
Thomas is powered by a solar panel and a wind turbine, but can also rely on a back-up diesel generator. The vehicle is controlled through GPS from land and will, and data on temperature, salinity and chlorophyll levels, which indicate plankton density, on its planned two-week run. “We have five GoPro cameras mounted on him both underwater and on the surface,” says Dodd. It can work either on its own or in tandem with uncrewed submarines that can provide it with more information from deeper waters.
Theoretically Thomas would have a range of 3000 nautical miles, and could work autonomously at sea for 90 days.
Dodds sees such vehicles as the future of marine exploration. “These robots will give us access to more cost-effective ways of collecting much needed data, which in turn will help us find better ways of protecting them in the future,” she says.
More on these topics: